February 24, 2007

Carnival of Cinema

A new carnival went up for your viewing pleasure over here.

Ike for President

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan I just came across this wonderful cartoon campaign ad for Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952- with a catchy tune and a cartoon Elephant- its wonderful!

Sullivan is doing a thing on American campaign ads at the moment and has collected quite a few good uns for lovers of political ephemera.

February 23, 2007

Christianity in Nagaland

Nagaland is as you can see from the map right in the northern eastern corner of India, next to Myanamar- amongst the more remote areas of India, it is still a predominately rural region but it has one odd characteristic, unlike most of the sub-continent it is majority Christian- the census of 2001 estimated that Nagaland was 90% Christian. This Christianisation proceeded over the last century- at the end of the 19th Century there were according to census data an insignificantly small number of Christians living within Nagaland. It has been over the 20th Century that this conversion has occurred. Richard Eaton though has discovered and discussed this conversion- because of the features that it exhibits and particularly because the conversion of Nagaland has not been even, different groups have converted to Christianity at different rates.

Eaton, a University of Arizona academic, produced in 2000 a collection of essays on Islam and Indian History including a study of the conversion of the Nagaland province to Christianity in the twentieth century. Eaton argued on the basis of data about three of the major groups of Naga peoples- the Angami, Ao and Sema who he argued provided the historian with a sensible basis of comparrison allowing us to understand why religious conversion worked. Firstly its worth saying that the political history of the three groups is almost identical- separate tribes within the linguistic groupings thrived up until the period of colonisation. In the thirty years between 1870 and 1900 the British annexed Nagaland and from 1900 various Baptist missionaries were invited to prosletise in the region. They were aided by an effort to educate the local population in schools and universities. In 1914 4,000 Nagas were called up to fight in World War One and that symbolised a larger change- the gradual economic integration of the Nagas into India. Trade for instance grew exponentially as did British legal influence upon the Naga tribes. But as Eaton noticed that doesn't explain the differing rates of conversion between the linguistic groups- it doesn't explain why two of those groups the Sema and Ao converted swiftly whereas the Angami were much more reluctant. One of the other variables one might expect to impact on conversion- the presence of missionaries- also didn't have much of an impact. Missionaries early on came to the Angami and Ao with differing effects- but didn't really make it to the Sema- when they did, they were surprised to find Christianity already strong.

Basically Eaton suggests that the variables which distinguished the various groups of Naga were not about colonisation but lay in other areas. Its worth pointing out at this point that Eaton adopts an anthropological theory formulated from observation of African conversion to Christianity and Islam which posits that as most pagan communities exist with a pantheon of lower spirits who deal largely with nature, local deities if you like, and then with an ascending scale of divinity up to a single high God at the top who is normally rather remote. What the theory states is that at a period of time when the world becomes more complicated and more vast- ie when the groups cease to be tribes and become traders with others then they become more interested in the less local gods and even in the high God- hence the creation of monotheisms. When surrounded by a monotheistic religion, they often fuse their high God with its God- hence they convert to that Monotheistic religion. If we use this theory as a tool, the conversion of the Naga becomes much more explicable as do the varying rates of conversion.

Using that theory its simple to explain why the Naga converted- but again its not so simple to explain why some converted easily and some didn't. Eaton argued that the difference in conversion between the three groups came from two factors-

1. The first factor explaining the different rates of conversion was the way that the earliest Christians transalated the whole concept of God in the bible. In the Aos language the word God or god in the Bible was transalated using the Ao concept of tsungrem or spirit. Basically the concept God became in Ao identifiable with the idea of spirituality and consequently the shift from their old high God to a Christian God was reasonably easy. All that they did was asign everything over the tsungrem boundary to the new all embracing tsungrem. If we look at the Sema- we can see exactly the same pattern emerge- the first transalations of the Bible into the Sema language used the name of the Sema high God for the Christian God. Therefore for the Sema the Christian God merely received the attributes of their preexisting God Alhou. Both the Sema and the Ao converted quickly but the Angami did not. The story of transalation there was much more complicated- with the Angami transalation of the scripture using two concepts both Jehovah (a European word) and a local Angami word for their high goddess Ukepenopfu for God. That created all kinds of theological difficulties within the Angami prospective converts- though even till today amongst the Angami who did convert the word for the Christian God is still Ukepenopfu.

2. The second aspect that Eaton identifies as explaining the reasons why the Naga groups converted in different ways is his description of their social organisation. Basically put the Sema were the most migratory of the groups- they had the clearest idea of a high God even before the British arrived. Next to them came the Ao who migrated a bit and also were ready to receive the idea of a high God. However the Angami were mostly sedentary farmers- they didn't practice slash and burn agriculture but managed very complex systems of irrigation and terracing. Consequently they were the least interested in acquiring a new high God as they had the least need for him.

Eaton therefore within the parameters of the theory developed by Horton from African evidence develops a quite convincing case about why particular groups within Nagaland converted to Christianity and why others did not. I can't attest to the accuracy of what he says- but he does have a large number of impressive primary sources to back up his conceptions- the idea does seem impressive to me, in the sense that it marries say with the way that in Anglo Saxon England churches were built near Yew trees and old festivals were taken over by the new Church. Similarly a Naga convert told an interviewer than he had adopted a Naga version of Christianity just as Europeans had a European version of Christianity. Whatever else this tells us, it makes for an interesting account of why a set of people convert to a monotheistic religion and how they do so. It may not be and probably isn't a perfect theory of how this process happens- but what it represents as a theory has some degree of plausibility.

Further Reasons for us to infer Middle Eastern Instability

One of the great bloggers that I didn't mention in my post about great blogs is James Higham. James writes a lot of perceptive stuff about all sorts of issues- coming from different angles- but this recent article on the problems of the Middle East and the way that Iran perceives that Saudi Arabia is an American stooge is a good demonstration of why the situation there is so unstable. As I indicated yesterday I am worried about the impact of a withdrawel of allied troops from Iraq because of the very real danger of them leaving a vacuum into which foreign powers pour their hatreds, with say the Turks invading to stop the Kurds, the Iranians to aid the Shia and the Saudis to aid the Sunni. You can imagine situations in which all of that might happen. What James indicates though is that throughout the region any of those moves- particularly on behalf of the Turks and Saudis will be interpreted by some as our actions that we in a sense own- which may funnel this civil war or regional war and the hatreds it produces outwards towards us. Imagine for example if Turkish forces commit an atrocity on Iraqis- one way of seeing that would be to see the Turks as traditional American allies doing Washington's bidding- it wouldn't be correct but it might be the prism through which Iran perceives matters. As James shows it is the prism through which the Iranians see Saudi mediation in Isreal-Palestine- so how would they see Saudi intervention in Iraq. These perceptions are destabilising because they encourage the radical anti-Westerners to see everything in black and white and not negotiate with local opponents and damaging to us because they threaten us with the fact that atrocities we did not commit could become owned by us and the losers of any conflict could blame the subtle hand of the Americans. There are arguments for withdrawel and I am not declaring against withdrawing- James just illustrates along with my piece on Imagined Community that should we withdraw that won't be the end of the matter.

LATER Pappusrif has left two very good comments questioning my argument at the bottom of this piece- rereading what I wrote I think I overstressed how much I oppose withdrawel- my opinion at the moment is that withdrawel might be the best of a set of bad options, I don't honestly know. But I want to sketch out some of the downsides to withdrawing- I've already sketched out some of the incoherencies in the Bush strategy of surge.

February 22, 2007

Five (Sorry broke the rules- Seven) Blogs to make you think

I was told by Freemania that I make him think which is a lovely complement but like all complements it came with a pay off that I had to list five blogs which make me think about things. I'm wondering if towards the middle or end of the year I might do an Iain Dale style list of intelligent blogs- blogs which make you rethink your ideas a bit. It strikes me that in general you might say that whilst we in Britain have used blogging well to gossip about politics and critique the mainstream media and launch rebuttal services (the two blogs I've linked to are examples of the best of the genre gossip and rebuttal blogs but there are other good ones too, on both right and left), despite that we haven't been as good at manufacturing original analysis and ideas. Personally I think we need to do a bit of promotion on that front which is why at some point I might come up with a list of good analytical blogs that we could update like Dale's list from time to time- its just an idea.

Back to the matter in hand- Freemania has kindly posted the instructions for this meme on his blog and as I'm not one of those original thinkers, I'm going to copy him, indeed I think amongst the instructions for the meme is to be unoriginal in its presentation- oh well,

The participation rules are simple:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote

So five blogs that make me think- bear in mind that this isn't an exclusive list- its just what I've come up with on the spur of the moment, so there are many blogs that make me think that I haven't included but here are five very good, very impressive analytical blogs with different interests and political orientations which make me personally think,

1. Stumbling and Mumbling is in my view one of the best British blogs around- indeed he might even be the best blog in the British blogosphere. He always produces interesting research and summarises it well and provides an illuminating discussion. In many ways this blog's approach to history and to culture is inspired by his to economics. He comes from a particular viewpoint somewhere on the libertarian left, but he isn't doctrinaire and he is willing to discuss things. Even if you disagree with him, he is indispensible reading every day.

2. Sinclairs Musings is a blog run by Matthew Sinclair. Matthew is a good friend of this blog- he comes from the right and has some very pronounced views. But he is open minded and very willing to engage in discussion- he has engaged with me in a couple of discussions about history (I need to post replies soon) and with Stumbling and Mumbling at the moment on Rawls etc. He writes well and interestingly- again I often disagree with him, but I often find his posts difficult to pick apart and interesting to read.

3. More than Mind Games is a blog run by James Hamilton and its an incredibly interesting blog. It mainly concerns itself with sport and its focus within sport is with football but its interested in the psychology and history of the game rather than in a mundane he played well analysis. Often the insights that James produces aren't just relevant to football but relevant to all sorts of other fields of life, his writings about football's history and its place in our culture constitute a fascinating tour of a really important part of our national psyche in this century. Furthermore he uses youtube in a very entertaining and interesting way- often demonstrating points by video clips. His blog is another that you just have to read every day.

4.. Rethink by Ashok is a blog whose articles I often have to read several times to understand. I often disagree with Ashok but he is one of the most interesting people blogging on the net from America and he isn't very well known. His recent series on Macbeth was a very interesting set of posts- he read the play very closely and his conclusions were fascinating. He is another whose criticisms are always polite and very acute- especially of this blog. He writes well about complicated subjects and he always causes me to ponder. Its difficult to comment on his blog, not because its difficult nor because he doesn't welcome comments but because his posts are so intelligent that you have to think very hard in order to discuss them. His is a superb blog.

5. The Granite Studio is a fantastic blog. A bit more lighthearted than many of those on this list, he is a very interesting blogger because he writes easily about China, its history and its culture. I don't know anything about China, its history or its culture and the Granite Studio gives me a very pleasant read and a very pleasant way in. He is definitely a must read for anyone interested in the world around them- which I hope means everyone reading this blog.

That list of five is of course not exclusive there are so many other good blogs out there- the Inky Circus is the best of girl geekdom out there, fun and interesting its great, another one that immediately strikes me to be a must read is Abu Aardvark the best of writing on the Middle East on the net, I could go on but there are so many blogs which are interesting and inciteful on the net- I'm going to break the rules here and say that I'm naming seven, to have this list without Inky Circus or Abu Aardvark is to neglect two of the best blogs on the internet.

I hope there is something that takes your fancy here- these seven are all great blogs and definitely make me think, some of them with a wry smile and some of them with a very furrowed brow trying to track their meanings- all of them are written by people with engaging personalities and interesting things to say.

February 21, 2007

The Man from Laramie: Power and its maintenance

The Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland is justifiably one of the most famous and explored poems in English history. I want to pick though on one particular theme within it because I think using that theme allows us an insight into another major work of art- The Man from Laramie. The Horatian Ode is about the construction of a political entity through the personal triumph of a particular man Oliver Cromwell- amongst the syllogisms that Marvell proposes within his poem is his last couplet, wherein he argues that

The same arts that did gain
A power must it maintain.

The Man from Laramie offers an interesting commentary on those two lines of verse because it focuses on a particular political issue. The real issue at the heart of the film lies in the inheritance of a farm to which there are two claimants- one is the son of the old farmer- an indulged psychopath and the other is a farmhand who has the merit but not the lineage to receive the farmstead. We know from the beggining of the film that what we are dealing with is a place carved out by force and owned by a purchase from a conquering tribe- we are dealing with a political situation where the farm owner has to play off competing forces and obligations- to the other white men living around them and to the threat of the Apache (Indians in this film are almost solely a threatening presence). One may gain a temporary advantage by giving in to the Apache within white society but that will be at the potential cost of the destruction of the other whites living around you.

Within this world therefore we perceive this minature political community functioning. The two 'sons' jostle for power over an ailing and blinded (both physically and mentally) patriarch. A stranger who seeks vengeance upon those that aided the Apache to slay his brother (yet again the Indians aren't even given the responsibility to have culpability) is brought into the situation and is the character through whose eyes we see this landscape of politics illumined. The central conflicts lie though in the issues over inheritance and part of that conflict is the business of what should happen to secure the estate. The old man at one point turns to his real son and tells the boy that the boy will never be able to hew out the estate like his father because he isn't up to it, rather he tells him to go and look at the accounts. We are left in no doubt that Alec- the old man- has committed violent acts in his past but in this film violence on behalf of the owners is always shown as something that causes them trouble. This political community needs the protection of peace and law. The loner has no importance in the succession battle and directly turns it down- his only medium for acquiring that succession would be marriage and yet it is precisely that marriage which is only an option if the girl leaves her family and comes to join him. He will not stay- succession will only in this film come through stability.

Its long been a debate in political philosophy- from Machiavelli and earlier onwards- about whether what Marvell said was true- whether the same arts that gain a state are the arts that do maintain a state. What this film seems to point out is that they aren't- doing violent and arbitrary things are sufficient to gain an estate, they aren't sufficient to keep it. Furthermore they can actively alienate and cause its destruction- even the able 'son' is eventually destroyed because he wishes to protect the violent acts of the legitimate but unable 'son'. Violence in the film breeds the incentive for loners to come visiting. A key part of the film is that Alec, the patriarch, dreams his son and hence his farm will be destroyed by a tall loner- he interprets it at the end as telling him that the farm hand was his loner- actually he is wrong, its the principle that loners embrace, that of violent standing up for rights and not legal redress that destroys the prospects of his farm surviving. The film argues that Marvell was wrong- the same arts don't maintain that did gain a power.

This is ridiculous!

The first debate for an election to be held next year in November happens this week in Nevada when all the democrat primary challengers bar Obama are debating in a forum. Will anyone who isn't an obsessive be interested? Sometimes I wonder if one of the problems with democratic failures in the US and UK is that every five minutes politicians are 'battling for their lives', we seem to live in a political culture which is constantly moving- moving so fast that anyone who doesn't have a life to go and give to looking at it can understand it.

I apologise I'm getting tetchy- but please this constant campaigning must be exhausting the audience. (NB. This isn't a swipe at any particular party or politician- everyone does it)

Could an Atheist be American President?

According to a Gallop Poll, atheists are amongst the most despised groups in the United States today- whereas only four percent could never vote for a Catholic President (so much for William Donohue's war against Catholicism), only five percent could never vote for a Jew, only seven percent could never vote for a black man. But almost half the country would never vote for a homosexual candidate, and more than half the country would never vote for an atheist candidate.

I should note that any poll has a margin of error and one poll can always be an outlier. Its an interesting poll even so.

February 20, 2007

Blogroll addition

Normally I don't post about my additions to my blogroll- all of the blogs on there are well worth a read and many have some of the more interesting analysis on the net within their webpages- but it doesn't seem to me of much interest to most people coming to this site to know how the blogroll is progressing and why its expanding. However I want to make an exception today. As this diary from Daily Kos documents Congress has regularly prepared for it reports from the Congressional Research Service on almost any and every subject. Normally these are available only to members of the United States congress- and to constituents who request them from them- however that isn't completely true because a number of websites have begun to for a fee publish the reports having been handed them by Congressmen. However there are also free collections of the reports- which are a vital resource for US and World Politics (a February report on the evolving ideology of Al Qaeda will be the subject of a later post here). Three of those free collections are at Secrecy News (run by the Federation of American Scientists, Open CRS and the University of North Texas. I hope this is a useful set of resources for everyone.

February 19, 2007

American Troops

Jonah Goldberg from the National Review quite rightly argues that it would be great if a new campaign could be started for troop conditions. He links to a series of Washington Post articles on the subject exposing some of the treatment of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan- we need some reporting of this in the UK context as well. Its vital that if we send troops to war that we treat them well.

Incidentally I mention this as a follow up to my previous article on this topic.

LATER I should add that Glenn Greenwald has also commented on The National Review's Coverage.

That low dishonest decade- the 1970s

Reading the National Review's symposium on who was the greatest President of the United States, something immediatly strikes me, which is that the conservatives who write for the National Review seem to have formed their opinions out of a distaste for what happened in the 1970s. Its often and rightly argued that many of the politicians who maintained the consensus in the UK about economics through the 1950s and 1960s were motivated by seeing mass unemployment in the 1930s, perhaps though we need to stress more how much the vigour of conservatism in the United States and the United Kingdom proceeds out of a vision of the 1970s that they have as a low dishonest decade. What's interesting is that for foreign policy the thirties still dominate as the decade that people on the right tend to align their policies against- there seems to be a vague sense that in the seventies the United States was weak allowing moments like the Iranian hostage crisis to happen (see picture above) but its appeasement which has become the convenient tool to close arguments rather than detente. I'm not so sure about the left- the British left has an anti-Thatcher thing going and its possible perhaps to see this last decade as something that the American left in particular mobilises against. The sense on the right about the seventies and thirties though is very strong and is a very interesting determiner of where the ideology is going.

February 18, 2007

Lost Hearts: Magic, Theology and M.R. James

I have written before about the great Edwardian ghost story writer M.R. James but I wish to make a further comment upon his story called Lost Hearts. It concerns the mysterious ghostly happenings at a country house inhabited by an old scholar and his recently invited nephew. The old scholar emersed in the works of Simon Magus and Hermes Trismegistus looks upon his nephew as a resource to be exploited, in the dark wombs of his mind he conceives of a plan to bring forth ever lasting life based on ancient knowledge and militating against modern morality. To say any more would be to disturb the story that James tells- and its a story worth hearing or reading without any further information.

The interest though for this entry lies in the relationship that James describes between magic and morality- one thinks of the Witch of Endor, a woman in the Bible with great but harmful power. Theologically magic has always occupied an uncertain place- hence the dark depths of hell into which Simon Magus historically was plunged and James exemplifies such a trend. For him magic sits in a world without revelation- all of the magicians referred to are men without the gospel and are men without scruple. Against them we have the country naive folk as often in James- but in the Lost Hearts those country folk are cast in the traditional pose- they know of magic but they fear it and esteem the value of prayer above all other things. Magic over the twentieth century has become more benign- in the hands of authors like J.R.R. Tolkein for example the magician or the wizard was seen as a good figure, inspiring the hero and aiding him on his quest. (Tolkein is suitably for such a subtle figure much more interesting than that in the way that he describes the magician.) But James's ambivalence represents an old tradition of thinking as well that sees in magic the meddling of human beings with powers higher than themselves, that sees in the attempt to make miracles an attempt to make a human being God- and consequently to step beyond morality or in this tale beyond the vengeance of Ghosts.

Its an interesting story- I recommend it- not merely for the concept I've tried to explain here but also for its literary merit.